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There are many reasons for a trail runner to invest in a GPS running watch.
Maybe you’ve planned a three-month block of training down to the last stride and need constant feedback. Maybe you want to know how long your go-to trail run is. Maybe you’re trying to adopt healthy habits and want to track sleep quality and calories burned. Maybe you get lost a lot. Maybe you’re even a grimy mountain runner whose latest piece of tech is a van from the 1990s—you still gotta know how much vert you did this week, right?
No matter what kind of runner you are, there’s something here for you.
Suunto Ambit 3 Run (Editor’s Choice)
$299 / $349*
*with heart-rate monitor
The Ambit3 Run has all the navigational features—route tracking, return to start, setting and navigating to way points—for a wilderness running adventure. Other capabilities (some of which require the heart-rate monitor) include estimating post-exertion recovery time and testing recovery progress, activity tracking and running-performance analysis.
But we were most impressed by the performance of the core running functions. In particular, the real-time pace sensor was highly accurate and, of the watches we tested, the most responsive to rapid accelerations and decelerations on ups, downs and flats alike—important for trail runs on ever-changing terrain as well as tempo workouts and track sessions.
Get it if: You train on roads, 14ers and everything in between.
Garmin Fenix 3
$500 / $550*
*with heart-rate monitor
The powerful Fenix 3 can track biking, pool or open-water swimming, hiking, cross-country or downhill skiing and triathlon, but it’s perhaps most potent when it comes to running. As well as tracking pace, distance and other standard stats, the Fenix 3 can help you dial your cadence with a metronome; measure ground-contact time; find its way back to your starting point, or follow a route you’ve created and uploaded; project race times based on training history and VO2 max (which it can also estimate); track activities, recovery and sleep quality; and congratulate you when you clock your fastest 5K, run your longest distance or set various other PRs.
For the vert-obsessed, the Fenix 3’s altimeter responds quickly to minute changes in elevation. It also senses when you’re slogging up a steep climb, switching automatically to the altitude and elevation-change screen before returning to a pace/distance/time display when you start cruising again on flatter ground.
And for the lunch-break warrior, the Fenix 3 looks classy enough to wear to work—so your 1 o’clock never has to suspect you just set your 10K PR.
Get it if: You want a sports watch that does everything you can imagine and more
Epson Runsense SF-810
The no-nonsense Runsense SF-810 from Epson—yes, the printer company—packs an impressive amount of data. Alongside essential running measurements like pace, mileage and elevation gain, the Runsense SF-810 lets you track less-common—but, to certain athletes, significant—stats like average stride length and percent grade.
Run mode features up to four fully customizable screens, allowing precise control of the data you see. A built-in heart-rate monitor—no chest strap required—indicates which of five heart-rate zones you’re in, important for certain types of aerobic training. (See Issue 105, July 2015, “Heart-Rate Training, Demystified.”) Though it lacks the navigation features of some higher-end sports watches, it has everything you need for periods of intense training.
Get it if: You’re a data freak who likes to train hard
The Surge is less for hardcore runners than for fitness-minded individuals who want a holistic view of their day. The run tracking is accurate, if limited to basics like mileage, time, pace and heart rate. (The Surge also tracks elevation gain, but doesn’t display it mid-run.)
Where the Surge really shines is all-day (and all-night) wear; it knows how many steps you take, how many calories you burn, how much time you spend in different heart-rate zones (“out of zone,” “fat burn,” “cardio” and “peak”) and even how well you sleep. The touchscreen interface is highly intuitive and user-friendly.
Get it if: Tracking your recovery and overall health is as important to you as tracking your runs.
$180 / $230*
*with heart-rate monitor
If you cross-bred a Suunto with a Fitbit, you might get a Polar M400. Its running functions are more advanced than those of the Fitbit Surge—the M400 displays altitude and elevation gain while running; notifies you when you leave a specified heart-rate or speed zone; and offers a “smart coaching” function that, among other things, classifies each run as “tempo,” “basic,” “recovery” or another type of training and tells you what aspect of your running it should have improved. In-run navigation is limited to a back-to-start function, though you can view your recorded route online, after finishing.
Pre- and post-run, the M400 can track time spent at different intensities of activity, calories burned, steps and sleep—and you won’t mind wearing it all day. We found the forgiving wristband made the M400 the most comfortable of the watches reviewed here. (Though note that, unlike the Surge, the M400 requires a chest strap to monitor heart rate.) Its price point is extremely competitive for the features it offers.
Get it if: You’re equal parts serious runner, step counter and penny pincher.
This review originally appeared in our December 2015 issue.